A year to go and we’re nowhere near a satisfactory Brexit

A significant milestone which most people would otherwise probably have failed to have noticed has been widely reported in the media today.

The picture above depicts how I had been imagining the mood will be in exactly a year’s time – on March 29th 2019 when the two-year Article 50 period expires and we finally leave the EU. As things stand, however, it will be Brexit in name only, so most certainly not be a cause for celebration. Ahead lies a minimum of 21 months as a vassal state, where we will continue to suffer all the frustrations of being in the EU without any representation in the EU institutions.

Looking back to that incredible morning of 24th June 2016 when the referendum result was announced, not even the worst pessimist could have predicted the complete shambles which the Government has made of the Brexit negotiations. Without any clear idea of what sort of final deal they sought and outsmarted at every turn by Michel Barnier  and his team, Theresa May and David Davis have made concession after concession to the EU and have come up with the idea of a transitional deal as a means of buying time after realising that so many areas of detail cannot be sorted out in time for a long-term deal giving us full independence to be signed off in time to be implemented a year from today.

So we are facing a situation where our bright future has been postponed. No restrictions on immigration, no freedom from the European Court of Justice, no cut in our contribution to the  EU’s coffers and the decimation of our fishing industry. This was not what we voted for in June 2016.

The big question is why so many Tory MPs, even staunch supporters of independence, are being so quiescent in the face of what is likely to be a disaster, not just for the fishing industry, but for the country as a whole  – and thus, for their party electorally. Are they, as one report suggests, mere “paper tigers”  who “may huff and may puff, but they won’t blow the Prime Minister’s house down – however far any heads of agreement deal may be from perfection”?

Thankfully, all is not lost – yet. The divorce document has to be signed off not only by the EU but by our Parliament too and the combination of a vote forced through (ironically) by remainers giving MPs the chance to reject the final deal and Mrs May’s wafer-thin majority may save the day. For one thing, the Irish border issue, in spite of reports to the contrary, is unlikely to be solved quickly in a way that will satisfy the Democratic Unionist Party, upon whose support Mrs May depends.

Secondly, the cave-in on fishing has provoked immense anger – on a scale that appears to have taken the government aback. Michael Gove was clearly uncomfortable when he faced some awkward questions in the House of Commons and given the fishing industry’s long history of campaigning, we can be sure that we have not heard the last of this issue yet.

Furthermore, it is not too late to try a different approach. The EEA/EFTA route has its friends and also its critics among Brexit supporters. Everyone, however, must agree on two points. Firstly, that it is not the ideal long-term relationship for an independent UK to have with the EU, but secondly (and in the immediate context, far more importantly), it is better as an interim arrangement in every way than the transitional terms which the EU is offering us – and is still a viable option which could be implemented with in a year. The EEA/EFTA countries are not part of the political structure of the EU, subject only to the 25per cent or so of laws relating to the internal market, not directly subject to the ECJ but to the EFTA court which can only rule on EEA-relevant matters and does not have any formal powers of enforcement. IF we took this option, we would be outside the Common Security and Defence Policy, the so-called  “Common Area of Freedom and Justice” – especially the EAW, Europol and the Eurogendarmerie. We would also be outside the Common Agricultural Policy  and critically, our fishing industry can return to domestic control. We could also restrict immigration as Liechtenstein has done.

For those who would like some more detail on this subject, this chart was produced by Anthony Scholefield during the Referendum campaign and although showing the advantages of the EEA/EFTA route compared with EU membership, if you substitute “our vassal statehood after 29th March 2019” for “remain” would still be a pretty accurate comparison.

We believe that all is not yet lost, but the lunacy of Mrs May and Mr Davis in pursuing this terrible transitional arrangement is totally baffling given something better is on offer. The electoral consequences for the Conservatives will be enormous. The sooner and more often they hear “1846” whispered in their ears* the more likely we are to see a desperately-needed change of tack.

 

  • In 1846, a crisis over the Repeal of the Corn Laws precipitated  a crisis for Robert Peel and the Tory party. The damaging split which ensued kept the Conservatives effectively out of office for 28 years. Your author is firmly convinced that the party will face a catastrophe of equal magnitude if Brexit is botched.

Danger – Handle with care

When the current Parliamentary session ends on July 20th, we will enter what has long been  called “the Silly Season” when newspapers dredge up all sorts of far-fetched stories to try to keep readers’ interest.

It seems that some are already getting into practise, particularly those who specialise in “biff-bam” Brexit stories,  many of which have a only very tenuous relationship with fact. Among the e-mails greeting me this morning were several communications from concerned leave supporters who had spotted seemingly worrying articles in the press over the weekend.

Two articles in particular were the focus of concern. The first concerns an ancient charter granted by Charles II in 1666 allowing 50 fishermen from Bruges “eternal rights” to fish in English waters as an act of gratitude for the hospitality given him by the city during the 1650s when he lived in exile.  The headline is much more lurid, however:- “Belgium says 1666 royal charter grants its fishermen “eternal rights” to English waters.” Not quite the same as 50 fishing boats from one Belgian city! Let’s unpack things a little more.

Firstly, a discussion my colleague John Ashworth of Fishing for Leave revealed that we technically have similar fishing rights off the Newfoundland Coast going back even further – to the period shortly after its discovery by John Cabot in 1497. Have we sought to upset the Canadians by exercising them at any time in the last hundred years? Almost certainly not. Furthermore, in 1666, Belgium did not exist as a country, being part of the Spanish Netherlands. Then, what is meant by “English Waters”? In the 17th Century, by convention, this meant only the sea within three nautical miles of the shoreline. Things have changed significantly since then, with territorial waters being expanded during the 20th century. Any attempts therefore by fishermen from Bruges to fish within three miles of the English coast after Brexit on the basis of this charter would open a legal Pandora’s box.

But are there actually any vessels that would be entitled to do so? The charter mentions “Fifty herring boats.” The historic town of Bruges, which in its heyday saw considerable maritime traffic along the  canals linking it to the North Sea, is no longer a major port. The fishing industry in that part of Belgium is centred on nearby Zeebrugge (literally “Bruges-on-Sea”) which is, in fact, the largest fishing port in the country, with a substantial fish market in the town. Yet in 2013, it only boasted 43 fishing boats in total. Given that Bruges lies on a canal 8 miles (or 12,87 kilometres) inland from Zeebrugge and its fish market, the likelihood of there being any fishing boats (let alone specialist herring boats) based in the part of the city which existed in 1666 is almost certainly zero.

In other words, when the Flemish prime minister Geert Bourgeois unrolled a copy of the charter on a Belgian television news show, it was a piece of grandstanding and nothing more.  It does, however, indicate just how much grandstanding we are likely to face as the Brexit negotiations get under way. Belgium, along with other EU member states who fish in the North Sea, has been upset by the decision by Michael Gove to denounce the 1964 London Fisheries Convention. Even this, however, is a considerable over-reaction. The wording of this agreement is vessel-specific and therefore was unlikely ever to have been put to the test as none of the boats specified are likely to be in commercial use 53 years later. In other words, Mr Gove’s action was merely a precautionary measure to avoid possible complications.

It’s not only politicians on the other side of the channel who are grandstanding.  I also received a couple of e-mails about an article claiming that Vince Cable reckons that Brexit will never happen. Once again, let us examine the facts. The Lib Dems campaigned in the recent General Election to be the so-called “party of the 48%”. They went up from 9 MPs to 12 only courtesy of the SNP slump in Scotland, so it can hardly be said that their campaign was a success, but hope springs eternal!

Cable is wrong because of the dynamics of the two main parties. The Tories did unexpectedly badly and are licking their wounds. The majority of Tory MPs campaigned for Remain but most Tory activists and a significant minority of MPs are solidly pro-Brexit, so to backpedal would be suicide, provoking the worst crisis in the Conservative Party since 1846. (See more on this here – principally the last three paragraphs.)

But Corbyn has been strengthened by the election result, even though he didn’t win. As a consequence, he is revealing his true Brexiteer colours. He and his right hand man John McDonnell have never been keen on the EU but when he won the Labour leadership campaign, he initially faced immense opposition from the majority of Labour MPs, who didn’t want him as their leader. He was thus unable to take an anti-EU stance publicly. This has now changed as Corbyn was quite smart in the election campaign, pitching to floating Brexit supporters who were either moving on from UKIP or who didn’t like the Tories. Now his own position is strengthened, he is coming out increasingly strongly for Brexit. This in turn adds further pressure on the Tories not to backpedal.

None of this is to ignore the complexities of Brexit but the Lib Dems are now no more than little pygmies shouting from the sidelines. The media may feel obliged to report the words of the man likely to be the next leader of the UK’s third party, but no one need take much notice of his wishful thinking. We are basically into a period of two-party politics. It may not last for long, but at the moment, neither Mrs May nor Jeremy Corbyn show any signs of trying to stop Brexit and no other party leader’s opinions matter very much.

I hope that this debunking of two articles will help reassure concerned readers. Politicians remain the least trusted profession in the UK, but journalists run them pretty close, being even less trusted than bankers, estate agents and trade union officials. There are some exceptions and we are thankful to those members of the media who do seek to maintain high standards and report facts accurately, especially when it comes to Brexit. Based on what I found in my e-mail in tray this morning, however, all too many journalists are guilty of sloppy reporting, poor research and sensationalism. Their offerings, especially lurid headlines in the forthcoming “Silly Season”, need to be handled with extreme care.