EU Referendum

Brexit: it's a strange old world


According to this morning's edition of The Times, "European leaders" are prepared to offer Britain a three-month extension to Article 50 to prevent parliamentary deadlock triggering a no-deal Brexit.

The paper tells us that they would agree to extend Britain's membership until July to allow time for either a second referendum or to agree a "Norway-style soft Brexit" – albeit only if parliament had come to a clear conclusion about the type of future relationship it wanted.

Bearing in mind the propensity of the legacy media to invent stories, only for them to fade into obscurity within days (and sometimes hours), one must take this latest report with a pinch of salt. This is more so when, as always, there is no named source, and not even a "senior" source. But, if what one of these fabulous creatures tells us is close to being true, then we have serious cause to worry.

That source "made clear" that Europe would also welcome a softer Brexit under which Britain would join Norway in Efta and sign up to a customs union with the EU. They said it could be a "game changer", adding: "Norway plus a customs union would be viewed positively".

The very incoherence of an Efta member being in a customs union is something which makes me wonder whether this "source" is entirely on the ball - although Barnier has been known to confuse the issue, and does not always speak the whole truth.

For instance, in a speech to the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels in July 2017, he argued that neither the internal market without the customs union – in other words the regime of the EEA for Norway, for Iceland, for Liechtenstein – nor a customs union agreement without the internal market – as in the case of Turkey – allows the free movement of goods.

He is right, of course, about the customs union, but it has long been the case since customs formalities involved physical checks at a border. But such was his tenuous grip on reality that he argued that the Efta/EEA arrangement "still entails a system of procedures and customs controls, among other things in order to check the preferential rules of origin (ROO)", while the customs union "implies a system of procedures and customs controls, including controls to check compliance with European standards".

In fact, most of the checks at the Swedish/Norway border involve duty on tobacco or alcohol, processing the limited number of tariffs (mainly to do with agricultural goods and fisheries products), and VAT. In the more highly integrated version of the EEA agreement that is proposed for the UK, none of these issues would have a measurable effect on cross-border trade with the EU.

It is, for instance, the case that the EEA agreement already makes provision for tariff-free trade (if the parties desire that to be the case), but to ensure frictionless trade – and especially on the Irish border – there would have to be a comprehensive agreement on VAT. And that lies outside both the customs union and the EEA Agreement.

However, such is the fog of incomprehension that afflicts our political and media classes, that they have fixed upon the requirement for participation in the single market and a customs union as necessary to achieve frictionless trade.

This has even been behind transforming the so-called benign and wholly acceptable Norway option into the bastardised version known by its creators as "Norway Plus", the "plus" being the addition of a custom union.

By any measure, though, single market plus a customs union (and with it the common commercial policy, requiring derogation from the free trade aspects of Efta) is not Brexit.

This is effectively, non-voting membership of the EU, a trap every bit as bad as Mrs May's Withdrawal Agreement, with its Irish protocol. Advocates of "Norway Plus", including Stephen Kinnock, have been open to the accusation of mounting a "false flag" operation.

Whether that would even get as far as being negotiated with the EU remains to be seen but, if anything in that form was adopted, it would amount to an abject betrayal of the referendum vote, especially as the EU is adamant that, come what may, the Withdrawal Agreement stands.

Nor indeed would a three month extension of the Article 50 period be enough to mount a credible referendum – if there could even be agreement on what the referendum should be about, when campaigners are at war with themselves over tactics.

Obviously, if any government was unwise enough to re-run the 2016 referendum, and the majority confirmed their desire to leave, then no one is any further forward. On the other hand, if there is to be a vote on the deal, rejection of that would catapult us in the direction of a "no deal".

For the moment though, any such developments are unsupported speculation – and could very well remain just that. The issue that we have to confront in the real world is whether Parliament will reject Mrs May's deal – with or without the Labour amendment.

In the current febrile atmosphere, there is every indication that the deal will be voted down, but how will MPs behave if Mrs May then calls a vote of confidence? Since Labour is not likely to be able to form an alternative government (which it would be allowed to attempt under the fixed term rules), the outcome of a lost vote would be a general election.

That would actually leave the EU in an interesting position. It need not stand idly by – it could be making its own arrangements for ratification, but it will have to wait longer to hear from the UK government as to whether the deal is approved. But then, would the EU be prepared to re-open negotiations with the new government?

Presumably, it might be tempted to deal with an incoming Labour government which currently seems to want the magic mushroom option of the single market and a customs union.

But then, would the electorate vote for a party which was determined to run roughshod over the referendum? Would an election even be about Brexit, or would the politicians attempt to make it about domestic issues, with the NHS high on the list?

In what then must be an alarming situation for business, the element of certainty they thought they might have enjoyed with Mrs May finalising the Withdrawal Agreement has not materialised. If anyone was to make predictions at this point, they would find it hard to exclude the "no deal" scenario.

This is certainly the pitch being made by Mrs May, as she argues for "my way or no way". Warning of said "practical consequences" should Parliament reject her deal, she has hinted darkly that she will step up "no deal" preparations. At the same time, she has point-blank refused to entertain the idea of extending the Article 50 period. Doing that, she says, re-opens the negotiations. "At that point, frankly, the deal can go in any direction".

In a sort of "you couldn't make it up" moment, the Telegraph gives pride of place to Jacob Rees-Mogg, declaring that Mrs May's broken promises and Mark Carney's wild claims are "damaging people's faith in democracy".

It must be a very long time since young Jacob looked in a mirror, as he fails to recall that it is his shenanigans, above all else, which have blocked the one outcome which would have probably been supported by the largest number of people, remainers and leavers – the Efta/EEA option.

As for Carney's intervention, only the "ultras" have kept in place their ideologically-driven view that "no deal" is a pain-free option. If the UK gets caught in a spiral of negative feedback, the damage to the UK's GDP could be far worse than the Bank of England is suggesting.

It is, therefore, Mr Rees-Mogg and his friends who have driven us to the brink – even if they have been aided and abetted by a weak prime minister who lacked the courage and the depth to take them on. Incompetence is writ through the establishment, like letters through seaside rock. The "great and the good" have made a complete hash of Brexit.

The last laugh, however, must go to Ellvena Graham, president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce. With almost child-like naivety, she declares that opponents of Mrs May's deal "should outline their alternative".

Of course, she is addressing her comments to the "great and the good", the self-same people who have made such a mess of Brexit. The "little people" don't count. We are invisible. And then Rees-Mogg bitches about democracy. It's a strange old world, as a lady once said. I wonder what she would think of this mess (illustrated).