The EU’s potential lifeline for Mrs May’s Brexit

The European Union (EU’s) Brexit negotiators from Mr Barnier (chief negotiator) downwards must have long since realised that Mrs May, Mr Davis and the Department for (not) Exiting the European Union are incapable of serious negotiations. Meaningful progress towards leaving the EU in an orderly way including suitable agreements, arrangements and infrastructure is practically non-existent; there is a mountain of detail yet to climb. What, then, can the EU do to rescue the process and Mrs May, since Mr Barnier has previously stated on more than one occasion that he can’t negotiate with himself?

The view from Brussels must be of a weak prime minister leading a fractious, divided party and government, who has a poor grasp of detail and instead relies on spin, wishful thinking and dithering.  Even the output from the Department for (not) Exiting the European Union is poor and vague to the extent of being practically useless. Their website, where comprehensive information and practical guidance on Brexit, and hyperlinks to further sources of information should be available, is more of a case study in superficiality, grandstanding and self-aggrandisement.  There is not even a link to the European Commission’s website on Brexit preparedness.  So whose job is it to help prepare the UK for Mrs May’s decision to leave the Single Market and – by extension – the European Economic Area, EEA?

By contrast, the output from the European Commission, setting out its increasingly uncompromising position, is clear, focused and comprehensive.  Right from the beginning, the EU has been making the running.  Its dedicated website illustrates the impressive (or terrifying) detail of their ‘public’ vision of where Mrs May and Mr Davis’s Brexit is heading and the implications, which appear to look like ‘falling off a cliff edge’ to many UK businesses.  Its advice to stakeholders (available here) repeatedly spell out, in as much detail as possible, what will undoubtedly happen across a wide range of activities and policy areas when the UK becomes a ‘third’ country after leaving the EU (on 29th March 2019) and the EEA.  It is quite likely EU officials often frustratingly ponder the question, “Do our British counterparts and their political leaders understand any of this, and do they actually care what it all means?”  The problem for our team of negotiators is that they do not seem to know and understand EU laws and regulations, their rationale and implementation. This is essential if they are to develop appropriate strategies, negotiating positions and challenges to the EU’s tough, logical and systematic stance.

From the EU’s perspective they have helpfully agreed to a transition period limited to 21 months which is necessary to give Mrs May time to negotiate a free trade agreement. In reality, much longer is probably needed. However, the EU’s terms for this transition period  – which have still not been agreed – would be very unpopular in the UK and thus may never be accepted given Mrs May’s weak position in Parliament.  The EU’s terms would make the UK into a temporary or maybe even permanent EU Vassal State where Brexit means Brexit in name only.  Crashing out of the EU without transition arrangements and not having any form of mitigation of the consequences of ‘third’ country status (the “cliff edge”, in other words) is becoming increasingly likely.

The European Commission is well aware of political developments in the UK and of the consequences of no deal scenarios (given the detail on their website). Its negotiators also have to confront the contradictions in Mrs May’s position.  Frictionless trade (as required by Mrs May and Mr Davis) is not possible as a ‘third’ country outside the Single Market (and the EEA).  Time is running out for businesses both here and in the remaining 27 Member States of the EU to adjust.  Time is also impractically short to put in place new facilities and legislative frameworks needed by a ‘third’ country such as border inspection points, designated entry points and the recruitment and training of staff.  What can the EU do, if it is so disposed or there is some behind-the-scenes collusion going on, to extend Mrs May a lifeline and avoid the ‘cliff edge’?

Any EU-sponsored lifeline needs to protect their interests. It has to operate within the EU’s objectives, legal framework, and established practices. It mustn’t ‘rock their boat’ or set any potentially disadvantageous precedent. It also needs to be sellable across a wide range of opinion in the UK, addressing as far as possible rational fears and aspirations.

The only viable option for an EU-sponsored lifeline is to facilitate the UK re-joining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and use this as a basis for retaining membership of the EEA for at least the transition period. It appears that the European Commission may be seriously evaluating the EFTA/EEA route for transitional arrangements for the UK,  as noted by an EFTA Court judge (Mr Carl Baudenbacher) giving evidence to the Commons Committee for Exiting the EU on 7th February 2018 and reported in the Telegraph on-line.

The EFTA/EEA option is not perfect, but as a holding position while something better is negotiated, it is much better than the transitional deal currently on offer. Hard Brexiteers could be won over by the facility to control immigration through unilaterally invoking Article 112 (the Safeguard Measures) of the EEA Agreement.  Further, the EFTA route to EEA membership gives members outside the EU a say in EU legislation affecting the EEA, is largely free (although ‘voluntarily’ Norway does contribute to regional development funds) and is outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The EEA Acquis or body of law is about a quarter of the total EU Acquis since it only relates to successful functioning of the EEA  in other words, issues relating to trade. And EFTA members can make their own trade agreements with other countries.  Membership of the EEA solves the problem of maintaining a soft border in Ireland between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.  It also gives us full control of fishing in our Exclusive Economic Zone.  Those worried about the economic effects of the ‘cliff edge’ could be won over because the EFTA/EEA option prevents this allowing practically frictionless trade to continue. The EEA agreement (for EFTA members) can be adapted to suit their interests.  Thus the UK (within EFTA) could get a customised version.

We cannot know what the European Commission is covertly doing and how far its efforts, if any, have progressed to save Mrs May, the UK and the EU from her folly.  However, given the efforts it has visibly extended to help enterprises both here and in the 27 remaining Member States to understand and adapt to the implications if Mrs May does not change her decision to leave the Single Market, nobody knows better the potential disaster she is determined to inflict and how it can be avoided.

Photo by thaddselden

Brexit means Brexit (in name only)

Politicians, civil servants and Eurocrats, economical with the truth as ever, if not actually disingenuous, are doing their best to create a Brexit in name only.  Mrs May, Mr Davis and the Department for (not) Exiting the European Union (EU) are carrying on regardless. They appear oblivious to the contradictions in what they are saying and doing, and the obvious warning signs from Brussels.  The following merely illustrates the tip of a delusional, ill-informed myopia.

Mrs May in an interview broadcast on 2nd February 2018 on Channel Four said:

“ …..we have until March 2019, that is when we are leaving the European Union. 

… What we are going to be negotiating with the European Union is a free trade agreement with them that will be about a tariff free, a frictionless trading as possible. …..That’s the sort of deal I’m going to be negotiating……What we will have in future and that is what the next few months negotiating is about is a bespoke free trade agreement.”

The EU sees things somewhat differently and has remained consistent in its approach, although as time passes it appears to be getting increasingly uncompromising and demanding.  Its top priorities are the preservation of its own interests and obedience to its rules rather than accommodating the wayward United Kingdom. This is very apparent in recent report and their published text and slides on the EU’s view of the transitional period.

Mr Barnier (the EU’s chief negotiator) on his recent trip to London, repeating previous comments (for example), said:

“The only thing I can say – without the customs union, outside the single market – barriers to trade and goods and services are unavoidable.”

An all-singing, all-dancing free trade agreement is not likely to be the long term solution even if it can be negotiated. Furthermore, negotiations on such a deal can only start after the UK has formally left the EU, that is, after 29th March 2019 or later, as confirmed the EU’s Trade Commissioner back in 2016. The EU’s perspective on a free trade agreement with the UK is roughly on the lines of  ‘OK if it is a win for us and a lose for you’.  The Irish Times has recently been reporting on what the EU is up to, such as hamstringing our businesses and government, and retaining the right through the Common Fisheries Policy to plunder our Exclusive Economic Zone (i.e., the waters up to 200 nautical miles from the shoreline. or the median point where the sea is less than 400 nautical miles wide).  The EU’s demands go far beyond what is strictly necessary for trade.

Unbelievably Mrs May is likely to agree to this and much more. Time is not on her side. Also the unbreakable law of negotiations is against her as well – in other words, ‘money and concessions flow from the weakest (or more desperate) to the strongest party’.  The transition cave-in (aka agreement to avoid a ‘cliff-edge’ of barriers to trade) effectively turns the UK into a powerless EU vassal state as explained here and here (where vassal status becomes permanent without a free trade agreement).  It looks like this could actually be less awful than the terms eventually on offer for an unfree trade agreement from an omnipotent EU to a subservient Mrs May-led UK.  Germany, in the form of Mrs Merkel, is already making disparaging jokes in semi-private about Mrs May.

That a domestically weak Mrs Merkel can lampoon our supposed ‘negotiating dreadnought’ points to an uncompromising EU/German-centric position.  And what Germany wants from the EU, Germany gets.  After all, the EU is a political construct which was designed to tame German nationalism, whilst facilitating its industrial, commercial and demographic clout, and at the same time giving France delusions of grandeur. Economic objectives are subordinate, not dominant to political objectives.  In considering a free trade agreement there should be no underestimating the EU’s continuing priorities of control-freak centralisation (under German hegemony), homogeneity and undermining national identities.  It is unlikely Mrs Merkel (or her eventual successors) will treat the UK kindly as this could encourage other Member States to rebel.

Yet the prospect of the UK becoming a permanent, powerless EU vassal state by indefinitely extending the transitional arrangement or by signing a one-sided free trade agreement is basically thanks to Mrs May’s dithering.  Although presumably Mr Davis and the Department for (not) Exiting the European Union had some input. Mrs May, for reasons never explained, decided that we must leave the Single Market (and by extension the European Economic Area, EEA). Remaining in the EEA by rejoining EFTA, the European Free Trade Association, is a much better proposition as a temporary or transitional measure. It would allow fairly frictionless trade and a breathing space in which to negotiate a suitable long-term trading relationship without being under duress.

The EFTA/EEA option allows for control of immigration through unilaterally invoking Article 112 (the Safeguard Measures) of the EEA Agreement.  The EFTA route to EEA membership gives members outside the EU a say in EU legislation affecting the EEA, is largely free (although ‘voluntarily’ Norway does contribute to regional development funds) and is outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The EEA Acquis or body of law is about a quarter of the total EU Acquis since it only relates to successful functioning of the EEA. And EFTA members make their own trade agreements with other countries.  Membership of the EEA solves the problem of maintaining a soft border in Ireland between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. It also gives us full control of fishing.

When Mrs May first rejected remaining in the Single Market, in her Lancaster House speech in January 2017 she appears to have been unaware of the EFTA/EEA route and its possibilities. Unfortunately, she does appear both then and in her later Florence speech of 22nd September 2017, to have swallowed ‘hook, line and sinker’ the disingenuous line repeatedly peddled by the EU leaders about the four freedoms (of movement of goods, capital, services and people) being inviolable – they certainly are if you are a Member State of the EU but not for EFTA countries who can unilaterally invoke Article 112 of the EEA Agreement.

EU leaders and Mr Barnier in particular appear to have been both unhelpful and economical with the truth about the EFTA/EEA route. However, recently it appears the European Commission may be seriously evaluating the EFTA/EEA route for transitional arrangements for the UK as noted by an EFTA Court judge (Mr Carl Baudenbacher) giving evidence to the Commons Committee for Exiting the EU on 7th February 2018 and reported in the Telegraph on-line. It would be very ironic if it was the EU which finally pushed Mrs May into signing up even temporarily to a better proposition – i.e., EFTA/EEA membership –  than the one she is currently minded to pursue.

We can but hope that common sense will prevail for if not, no amount of spin will be able to conceal the truth about Mrs May’s submissive transition to an unfree trade agreement. There will obviously be a heavy political price to be paid in the next General Election in 2022 for short- changing the British people over Brexit through turning this country into a permanent EU Vassal State.

Transition to a permanent EU vassal state?

Unless the proposed transitional deal is blown out of the water, the United Kingdom appears to be moving inexorably towards being a permanent European Union  Vassal State. Recent speeches and other statements by Mrs May and Mr Davis point strongly to this being the most likely outcome from their handling of the Brexit (or Article 50) negotiations.  All looks good on the surface, but they do not understand how the EU works and some worrying facts emerge when you analyse what they did and did not say. .

Mr Davis, reiterating Mrs May’s decision to leave the Single Market, in his Teesport Speech of the 26th January 2018  said:

“While the aim of the implementation period is to provide certainty and continuity, we must keep sight of the fact that this is a bridge to a new future partnership.

Where, crucially, the United Kingdom is outside of the single market, and outside of the customs union.”

He then went on to say:

“We want a good Brexit for business and a good Brexit for the British people and we will deliver that on a frictionless access to the Single Market and a freedom political and an economic freedom for the future.”

Clearly there is a contradiction here – it is not possible to have frictionless access whilst being outside the Single Market (or the European Economic Area, EEA) and being a ‘third country’. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has pointed this out on several occasions. For example, he said:

“A trade relationship with a country that does not belong to the European Union obviously involves frictions.”

Frictionless trade between members of the Single Market (and European Economic Area, EEA) occurs because of a common set of rules, regulations, processes or procedures, enforcement and overall EU surveillance. Accessing the EEA from outside its external borders involves complying with regulations, inspections and testing, processes and procedures, external tariffs, customs checks/clearance, VAT etc. intended for dealing with ‘third countries’.   These measures manage risks involved with ‘imports’ and sometimes are protectionist in nature.

The transition period (aka implementation period) clearly places this country into the status of a powerless EU Vassal State for 21 months after 29th March 2019 as explained here. However, if agreement on frictionless trade cannot be agreed during this period – which seems a certainty given Mr Barnier’s often repeated comments and how the EU normally treats ‘third countries’ – it will need to be extended potentially indefinitely.

Mrs May’s Davos speech on 25th January 2018 to the World Economic Forum provided the perfect audience to sell the opportunities presented by Brexit.  She could have outlined her vision, complete with objectives, timetable, planning and progress, in order to encourage her audience to invest here.  She could have addressed the principal concerns of business, for example, about market size and frictionless access to the EEA. She could have described (with specific detail) her vision for a ‘new, deep and special partnership’ with the EU which would have clarified and developed her Florence speech of 22nd September 2017.  Instead of which she focussed on artificial intelligence and making the Internet safer –  presumably her highest priorities.  Any business or political leader present, listening to and reflecting on the content could be forgiven for concluding that the UK government has nothing to offer, having already ceded control of Brexit negotiations to the EU and thus, any meaningful Brexit is not going to occur.

Artificial intelligence then is a very poor substitute for Brexit failure and even here Mrs May cannot easily offer unique government-supported opportunities for funding research and development nor can she use public sector procurement to facilitate innovation.  She can’t even protect the public sector from future Carillion fiascos. EU directives (laws) and gold-plating by her civil servants will interfere.

The transition proposals so far on offer from the EU (as explained here) are far worse than the alternative of remaining within the EEA through re-joining The European Free Trade Association (EFTA).   It is likely that the eventual transition deal (if it actually happens given  it is dependent upon Mrs May s accepting the EU’s outstanding Phase 1 conditions), will be even more onerous upon this country than already proposed.  The EU’s stance on transitional arrangements, manifested recently by the Annex to the Council Decision of 22nd May 2017 and published 29th January 2018, appears to be getting more uncompromising.  If accepted, Mrs May is likely to be forced into making further large payments into the EU’s budget, accepting continued freedom of movement of persons, taking on additional financial liabilities, remaining subject to the EU’s European Court of Justice (ECJ) and to the Common Fisheries Policy, transferring further responsibilities to the European Commission (typically defence and defence procurement, along with regulation of financial services), following the complete EU Acquis or body of existing and future law, and giving extra rights to EU citizens living here, etc..  Meanwhile, the UK will be prevented from negotiating free trade agreements around the world whilst being excluded from existing ones negotiated by the EU.

It was Mrs May’s decision to reject the EFTA/EEA option, even as a temporary measure. She first made this clear in her Lancaster House speech in January 2017.  The EFTA/EEA option allows for control of immigration through unilaterally invoking Article 112 (the Safeguard Measures) of the EEA Agreement.  The EFTA route to EEA membership gives members outside the EU a say in EU legislation affecting the EEA, is largely free (although ‘voluntarily’ Norway does contribute to regional development funds) and is outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The EEA Acquis or body of law is about a quarter of the total EU Acquis since it only relates to successful functioning of the EEA. In other words, the EEA component of the Acquis is only about trade and not political integration. Furthermore, EFTA members make their own trade agreements with other countries.  Membership of the EEA solves the problem of maintaining a soft border in Ireland between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.  The EFTA/EEA option was claimed to be the best choice for a Brexit economy in a recently leaked overly pessimistic draft government report EU Exit Analysis – Cross Whitehall Briefing.

Unfortunately it appears that both Mrs May and Mr Davis are well and truly out of their depth.  The Department for (not) Exiting the European Union also seem to be lacking in essential competence, and is in line to face the blame for failings in getting a successful Brexit. At best, everyone is following a political Brexit whilst ignoring practicalities.  At some stage the number of Conservative MPs who will realise that the dire situation this country is facing is of their own government’s making will reach a critical mass.  At this point, there will either be an almighty rumpus following which some quite senior heads are likely to roll or else if the government persists on its stubborn course, the electorate will punish the Conservative Party severely in the next General Election in 2022 for short-changing the British people over Brexit through their acquiescence in turning this country into a permanent EU Vassal State.

Deal or no deal? Some thoughts on last week’s meeting

Last week I, along with about 90 other people, attended a conference entitled Deal or no deal – what are the options? hosted by David Campbell Bannerman MEP.  I was very much hoping to hear something of the government’s current thinking about the progress of the Brexit negotiations with the EU.

The opening speaker, Rt Hon Greg Hands MP, gave a very upbeat assessment of our trading opportunities post-Brexit. His department, he assured us, is ready, come what may. Nine new trade commissioners are to be appointed and our new tariff schedules are being prepared for the World Trade Organisation. At a time when protectionism is on the increase, there is considerable enthusiasm in some quarters (which he did not name) for a new independent UK to re-emerge as a champion of global free trade. He was adamant that all the major countries with whom the EU had signed trade deals were keen to continue a similar arrangement with us on Brexit.

One member of the audience expressed concern about how high standards in agriculture could be maintained if trade was to become freer. Mr Hands insisted that there would be no lowering of standards on food quality and we would not be flooded with poor-quality imports (Presumably a reference to chlorine-washed chickens about which there are currently many worries)

David Campbell Bannerman then introduced what he called the “Super Canada” option which, he claimed, was the Government’s  preferred option. This was no surprise, given that a few days beforehand, the EU was widely reported as considering a deal along the lines of CETA, the EU/Canada deal, with the UK. This has been strongly criticised both by the left and by other informed commentators for its inadequacy. Mr Bannerman said that the EU likes the CETA deal and intends to use it as a template for future trade deals with Australia and New Zealand too, Twelve of the 30 chapters in this deal would need no change, he informed us. The others would not be suitable without re-writing, as we would (presumably) wish to protect the NHS  The EU is worried about the future UK attitude towards regulation, as it doesn’t want to see us becoming the Singapore of the North Atlantic, an option enthusiastically supported by, among others, Owen Paterson, whose piece appeared, perhaps coincidentally, on the same day as this conference.

David Davis gave the keynote speech. He stated that he does not want to end up with no deal and is confident that we will get a deal. He pointed out the areas where progress had been made and insisted that our exit will be conducted in a smooth, orderly way.

There was, nonetheless, a possibility that we may not get a deal, but Whitehall was preparing for every eventuality.

Mrs May has consistently rejected using Norway as a model and Helle Hagenau, a familiar face to our more long-standing members, explained some of the pitfalls. Although advising against our staying in the EEA, however, she felt it was worth our re-joining EFTA as we needed some trading arrangement with the four EFTA countries once we leave. Switzerland is our sixth most important trading partner while bilateral trade with Norway  was worth £18.57 billion in 2015. She did, however, mention that although EFTA courts are not bound to implement the ECJ rulings, , they were in fact doing so, even though the ECJ has no direct power to intervene in EEA matters and the actions of the EFTA court was an encroachment on the original basis of the EEA agreement.  With the alleged indivisibility of the “Four freedoms” of the Single Market mentioned on a couple of occasions during the morning, I was surprised that no one mentioned Liechtenstein’s unilateral restriction on free movement of people at this point.

The final speaker was Rt Hon David Jones, who had formerly worked as a minister in DExEU (the Department for Exiting the European Union)  who informed the meeting that any role for the ECJ in our affairs post-Brexit would be totally unacceptable to him and a number of his colleagues. If this meant we would leave with no deal, then as far as he was concerned, so be it.

Interestingly, little was said about the details of any transitional arrangement, which as we have pointed out, the EU is only prepared to offer us under terms which would see us still under the thumb of the ECJ. We can therefore presume that Mr Jones and a number of his colleagues will be  equally opposed to any such arrangement.

Although only billed as a “comment” rather than a speech, the few words shared by Hans-Olaf Henkel of the BDI, the German equivalent of our CBI, were well received. Although he regretted our vote to leave the EU and still hoped Brexit wouldn’t happen,  he was most unimpressed with the way the EU was handling the negotiations. He referred in particular to the “divorce bill” which  he regarded as unacceptable. He also said that Brexit was the fault of Brussels, although his statement that “you joined an EU of sovereign nations and suddenly someone decided to make a United States of Europe out of it” was a rather naive comment given the United States of Europe was always the destination of the European project, right from the days of Jean Monnet.

It was good to meet up with a number of colleagues from other campaign organisations, quite a few of whom I had not seen since the referendum.  It was worth attending this meeting, although I came away with a clear sense that not everyone in the government is singing from the same songsheet, so perhaps the lack of a clear Brexit strategy is understandable given the balancing act required to avoid a massive rebellion on the back benches.

Among the other attendees was Viscount Matt Ridley, whose rather witty comments on the conference may be of interest. They can be found here.

Straws in the wind

Apart from signs of possible movement in the stalled negotiations with the EU on trade, events are beginning to push into reality those matters which have previously been merely the subject of rhetoric and speculation.

Whatever plans the government has, it will have to start giving practical information to businesses in the early new year about its intentions. In our extended article The Complexities of Brexit, we pointed out the urgency of the situation for chemical manufacturers, farmers, food producers and other businesses which have long production cycles or investment programmes which reach into the post Brexit era.

Whilst trade associations like to avoid publicity which might upset the government and to conduct their negotiations in private, the urgency of the situation is pushing these matters into the public sphere. Two articles from City AM of 22nd November demonstrate this.

EASYJET PLAN COULD SHAKE UP SHAREHOLDINGS by Rebecca Smith

EASYJET yesterday set out plans which could force UK shareholders to sell their stakes after Brexit, as it prepares to comply with foreign ownership rules.

Under EU law, the airline needs to ensure majority control and ownership by EU nationals after Britain leaves in order for it to keep operating intra-EU. Yesterday it unveiled plans to amend its articles of association which currently give directors the power to limit the ownership of the firm’s shares by by non UK nationals. Easyjet intends to change this so they apply to non EU shareholders, which will exclude UK shareholders once the UK has left the EU – giving it the power to force UK shareholders to divest their shares if need be.

The airline will put the changes to shareholders at its annual general meeting in February, saying the switch-up will ensure that Easyjet is able to remain EU-owned and controlled at all times after the UK has left the EU.

The carrier said it has “no current intention” of using the proposed powers……

BREXIT BREAKTHROUGH NEEDED BY EARLY 2018 TO HELP BUSINESSES.

By Jasper Jolly & Alys Key

THE GOVERNMENT must secure a Brexit transition deal by the end of the first quarter of 2018 before businesses implement “no deal” contingency plans, according to the head of the Institute of Directors (IoD).

Speaking at the lobby group’s annual dinner last night, IoD director general Stephen Martin said businesses “are concerned about what happens if a breakthrough is not made at the next round of talks in December”.

He said “It’s as simple as this – we are now only 16 months away from leaving the EU. We need the discussion to move on to our future trading relationship and critically what happens when the Article 50 timeline runs out in early 2019.

But he praise IoD members for their “determination” in preparing for every Brexit eventuality, saying that businesses have upheld their end of the bargain and now need the politicians to “deliver” for them.

IGNORANCE ABOUNDING IN HIGH PLACES

A colleague, who has been quietly lobbying trade associations for months, decided it was time to speak to his MP. During the course of their discussion, he mentioned EFTA (The European Free Trade Association) and was astonished to find that this shadow minister did not know what it was. He had never heard of it. Over many years of campaigning, we have often been surprised at the lack of knowledge by MPs of all parties concerning the European project. A national referendum and over a year’s intense debate on the result appear to have been insufficient to disperse the fog of ignorance on even such a basic matter as this.

It is not just politicians either. At a private meeting of senior business people, not one participant raised a hand when asked if they had ever downloaded and skim-read an EU Free Trade Agreement. Former civil servants at the meeting said that this was also true of ministers they had served.

Mind you, half an hour of reading the sort of leaden prose which the EU produces is enough to sap the will to live! Considering the very definitive statements made by leading spokesmen and media personalities, it would be interesting to know how many of their very emphatic opinions were based on direct acquaintance with the text. The Devil is always in the detail.

A WIND OF CHANGE

Commenting on a report of this meeting, our good friend John Ashworth of Fishing for Leave wrote “I haven’t been home long from three days in London and I too can’t say what I have been up to, but I can confirm there is a wind of change. I have a lot of work to do now, but I am happy with the three days, never satisfied enough. But movement is at last happening, so to all readers, keep the pressure up.

“The two factors which had the most effect on them were, on the one hand, a most extraordinary level of ignorance and, on the other, an almost complete inability to listen. If anything, the stories that have leaked out on these aspects are somewhat under-stated” – yes, spot on”.

 

A Customs Union with the EU is a daft idea

The latest pronouncements from Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Negotiator, provide little comfort to those of us seeking reassurance that the Government knows how to fulfil its declared aim of leaving the EU in 18 months’ time while avoiding a “cliff edge” for business.

Essentially, the rather tired “having cake and eating it” analogy sums up what Barnier sees as the root of the problem. He talked of a “nostalgia” for the Single Market and made it clear that you cannot be outside the Single Market while continuing to enjoy its benefits.  “This is simply impossible”, he said.

There is a wide range of views among Brexit supporters regarding whether or not we should stay within the Single Market. If there is a non-single market option which could provide us with something as near as possible to the frictionless trade which Business is demanding, the Government is keeping very quiet about it. This in turn is resulting in a concern that our Brexit team – and perhaps the Government as a whole – still does not grasp what it means to be a “third country” for trade purposes.

When it comes to the EU’s Customs Union, however, there is no reason to support our continued membership. It is an open and shut issue. We certainly need a Customs arrangement with the EU or else a massive queue of lorries is going to build up on the M20 immediately after Midnight on March 29th 2019, but that is not the same as a Customs Union.

A Customs Union is an area within which goods can circulate without restriction but which imposes a common external tariff on goods from outside.  The first Customs Union was the German Zollverein, established in 1834 and which gradually included most German states. Significantly, the economic union was followed by political union.

The Treaty of Rome, which established what has become the European Union, proposed the establishment of a Customs Union. By the time the UK joined, it was up and running and we had to impose the common external tariffs on all goods from outside, including those from our Commonwealth friends such as Australia and New Zealand. In other words, we surrendered the freedom to negotiate our own trade deals.

Shortly after the Treaty of Rome, the UK which at the time was not keen on joining the European project instead became one of the founder members of EFTA, the European Free Trade Association, which was not a Customs Union. It thus allowed members to negotiate their own trade agreements if they so desired, although EFTA also has negotiated free trade deals on behalf of all its constituent countries. Significantly, EFTA has never sought to create any sort of political union among its members. It was and is purely about trade.

Why then should a non-EU member want to be associated with the EU’s Customs Union? If you are a micro-state like San Marino or Monaco, you are unlikely to have the resources to negotiate your own trade deals and thus piggybacking on your larger neighbours is the best way of keeping trade flowing smoothy across your borders. This is not the case with Turkey, the only large non-EU country which has a customs union with it.

During last year’s Referendum debate, the so-called “Turkish option” received very little coverage. Being in a similar customs union with the EU was occasionally mentioned as one possible post-Brexit scenario but then almost immediately dismissed as being unsatisfactory. The Turks themselves don’t like it, which is one very good reason for rejecting it.

For starters, being a member of the Customs Union requires accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Turkey also may not negotiate trade agreements with non-EU countries but does not benefit from the EU’s Free Trade agreements. Countries who have signed a free trade agreement with the EU can export their goods into Turkey tariff free while imposing tariffs on Turkish goods.

One reason for Turkey accepting this unsatisfactory arrangement was its aspiration to join the EU. We are going in the opposite direction, so there is even less reason for us to adopt it, even as a transitional arrangement.

If further proof were needed of this argument, this article on the Kapikule Border crossing between Turkey and EU member state Bulgaria,  shows that a Customs Union with the EU does not result in quick and easy movement of goods across borders.  A Turkish lorry driver is quoted as saying that a mere 14-hour wait at the customs post constitutes a “good day”!

The article goes on to describe how “each driver clutches a sheaf of several dozen documents — an export declaration, a carnet from Turkish customs officers, invoices for the products they are hauling, insurance certificates and, when lucky, a transport permit for each EU nation they will drive through.”

No one in their right minds should be suggesting that any future UK-EU trading relationship be conducted along these lines.  Like it or loathe it, re-joining EFTA as an interim arrangement and thus accessing the Single Market along the same lines as Norway and Iceland would spare us this chaos. Maybe the Government has some better alternative up its sleeve, although if this is the case, it is playing its cards very close to its chest, but we can’t stay in the EU’s Customs Union if we’re not an EU member; we can only make a Customs Union agreement on Turkish lines and evidence strongly suggests it’s not worth the bother.

 

Photo by Peanut99