Separating the wood from the trees

As the “ping-pong” continues between the two Houses of Parliament over the amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, it is easy to end up very confused, bogged down by a mass of detail.

Part of the problem is separating the wood from the trees. Some items of news, touted as major developments, could better be described as “going round in circles”. More of the same, in other words. Take, for example, the “Backstop” plan announced by HM Government two weeks ago – a temporary customs agreement  which, so it believed, would solve the Irish border problem.  Any gambler would have been justified in betting that the proposals would amount to nothing new and would promptly be rejected by the EU.  This, of course, is exactly what happened. In his usual polite, but measured way, Michel Barnier dismissed the UK plans. Here is his speech. For those readers not wanting to read it in full, this short extract, where he contrasts the EU’s “backstop” proposals (which have been deemed unacceptable by  a number of pro-Brexit supporters in the UK) with HM Government’s, is sufficient to show just how wide of the mark our side still is:-

But let me recall that our backstop provides answers to each of these questions.

It provides specific solutions to the unique situation of Northern Ireland.

The UK is taking a different angle, however. It is looking for a UK-wide solution.

Let me be clear: our backstop cannot be extended to the whole UK.

Why? Because it has been designed for the specific situation of Northern Ireland.

What does it do? On customs, Northern Ireland would form part of our customs territory. What is feasible with a territory the size of Northern Ireland is not necessarily feasible with the whole UK….

So it’s back to the drawing board with the clock continuing to tick.

If further evidence was needed of how good life can be outside the EU, even for signatories of the EEA agreement, this documentary on Liechtenstein is worth listening to.  It includes an interview with the country’s Prince.  If anyone should know how well this small country is functioning outside the EU but yet within the EEA, its leader must surely be the man.

Such is the muddle at the heart of government that some serious commentators are now claiming that we will never achieve Brexit. The forthcoming European Council looks to be a bad time for Mrs May. On the one hand, she is nowhere near to coming up with any sort of agreement to which the EU will agree. On the other hand, some of her backbenchers are threatening to bring down the government over fears that Brexit will be botched and disaster ensue.

The standard of reporting by the press when it comes to Brexit has left much to be desired, Looking at things more objectively, the two problems the government is facing are closely related. There are unquestionably a few determined “wreckers” who have not come to terms with the Brexit vote and never will. There are also mainy remain-voting MPs who have accepted the verdict of the referendum but will only go along with the government’s plans if they are confident that the country will not suffer economic turmoil and dislocation. They, unlike their more gung-ho Brexit colleagues, are aware of the problems which we, among others have highlighted if we have to crash out of the EU without a deal and bringing down the government is the only weapon left in their arsenal.

We have long been saying that only a crisis will bring a change of direction.  Thankfully, the government’s complete lack of ability to address the outstanding issues, let alone throw its weight behind a solution which will be acceptable to Parliament, makes such a crisis increasingly likely.  If it leads to a reconsideration of something like the EFTA route, this could actually prove beneficial, detaching from the hard core head-banging remainiacs those pragmatic MPs who are prepared, in spite of their own personal preference, to support the people’s democratic decision with a sensible Brexit and thus ensure that we do finally leave the EU next March.

Floundering – and not just over fishing!

Slowly but surely, the degree to which the Government and the Department for Exiting the European Union are floundering in their Brexit plans is becoming more apparent.

A week ago, Alistair Carmichael, the MP for Orkney and Shetland, finally received an answer to a written question about fishing. Here is the question and the answer:-

Question:
To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what legal identity is planned to be in place to prevent EU vessels operating inside the Orkney and Shetland 12 nautical mile zone during the proposed 21-month implementation period after EU treaties and the derogation for exclusive use of the Orkney and Shetland 12 nautical mile zone cease to apply to the UK. (140647)

Tabled on: 02 May 2018

Answer: (George Eustice🙂

The implementation period agreed between the UK and EU was endorsed by the European Council on 22nd March.

Under the agreement, current fisheries rules and enforcement arrangements will continue to apply. This includes provisions relating to access to waters within the UK’s 6-12 nautical mile zone.

Access to fish in UK waters after the implementation period will be a matter for negotiation. Access will be on our terms, under our control and for the benefit of UK fishermen.

You will notice that the answer completely fails to address the question. It says that current conditions will apply, but does not mention the legal basis. There is a good reason for this – there isn’t one!

It’s not just fisheries issues which are exposing the hole which DExEU and the Government are digging. On 23rd May, Robin Walker and Suella Braverman appeared before the Commons select Committee. You can watch the full session on Parliamentary TV. Some particular highlights   include Mr Walker’s awkwardness when questioned on customs arrangement. More importantly, there was much flannelling around the subject of the legal basis of any future treaty. Pat McFadden MP asked four times about whether Parliament will be expected to vote on the financial arrangements before a legally-binding treaty is finalised – in other words, that MPs were being expected to vote for the package “in good faith”.

The scale of the mess surrounding the negotiations is being exposed more and more by the day. A report in The Times suggests that Mrs May is seeking an extension of the transitional period until 2023. This comes a day after EU sources dismissed the government’s “backstop” plans for the Irish Border. Mrs May insisted that the proposal would be time-limited, but one Brussels source said: “It will apply for as long as there is no credible alternative. It can’t be time limited or it’s not a backstop.”

The government is going round in circles. The totally disastrous position facing our fishing industry if Mrs May persists with her current plans were laid bare over a month ago.  We remain hopeful that this will not happen because these plans are being proved more untenable by the day. It may take a crisis to bring about a change of direction, but so flawed are the current plans that the crisis may not be long in coming.

Ireland may lose badly by obstructive behaviour over the border

This piece, by Ray Bassett, was forwarded to us by the veteran Irish Eurosceptic Anthony Coughlan

Playing the EU’s Game on the Border Will Damage Ireland’s Interests, says former Irish diplomat in Politeia’s new analysis.

Dublin should accept UK border plan and work with Britain to make Brexit a success for both islands

The Irish border has become an obstacle to the Brexit negotiations. All sides want to keep the border ‘soft’ and friction free and preserve the gains of the Good Friday Agreement. But the EU and Dublin have rejected Britain’s proposals.

In Politeia’s next publication, Brexit and the Border: where Ireland’s True Interests Lie, Ray Bassett considers the border against the background and reality of Ireland’s economic and political interests, and the options for the UK government. A former diplomat, who served as Ireland’s Ambassador to Canada and was also a Good Friday Agreement negotiator, Dr Bassett explains that the Irish Government’s present policy is not in the country’s best interests. It leaves Ireland dangerously exposed if the border problem scuppers an overall EU/UK deal.

The author analyses the different options floated to ‘solve’ the border question. Politically the only possible solution is one based on technology along the lines proposed by the UK. This would be based on a trusted trader programme. Proven models, such as that in Australia, already exist from which some useful features might be adopted.

By contrast the EU’s proposals would endanger the stability of the island. Brussels should abandon its red line that anything on the island of Ireland must “maintain the integrity of the Union’s (i.e. the EU’s) Legal Order”. Bassett questions the wisdom of the Irish Government in aligning itself with Brussels at a time when the EU itself is undergoing changes, none of which are in Ireland’s interests. Moreover, a number of national elections across the EU have made clear a rising alienation of voters from the centralising policies of the present EU.

Irish leaders should change course and work to resolve the border dispute rapidly and towards a comprehensive free trade agreement between the UK and the EU. Given the historic, ethnic, cultural and economic links between Ireland and Britain, it is strongly in their country’s interests to do so. Ireland needs a successful Brexit.

The author concludes by proposing the Irish government should:

 *   Make clear both to London and Brussels that the Border must not be used as a weapon to thwart Brexit.
 *   Enter into immediate and practical bilateral discussions with London to resolve the border question.
 *   Work with the British government and the political parties in Northern Ireland to avoid any undue hardening of cross-border arrangements on the island of Ireland.
 *   Work with the British government to avoid any new barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
 *   Seek to join EFTA and leave the EU. EFTA membership would facilitate continued trade with the EU and allow a free trade with the from outside the Customs Union

Commenting on the legal framework, Professor David Collins explains that legally Bassett’s proposals would work well to Ireland’s interests. Liam Halligan explains why economically, Ireland cannot afford to play the EU’s game over the border, but should accept that Ireland’s economic interests demand that it should work with Britain to develop and put into effect the technological solution.

The paper was launched at a special meeting in House of Commons Committee on Thursday 17th May, with the speakers including the author, Ray Bassett, David Collins, Professor of International Economic Law, City University, and Liam Halligan, co-author of Clean Brexit with Gerard Lyons and Economics Columnist at The Sunday Telegraph.

THE  AUTHOR


Dr Ray Bassett has been a senior diplomat at Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin and has served as the country’s Ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas 2010-2016. Other diplomatic postings include Copenhagen, Canberra, Belfast (twice), London and Ottawa. He was involved in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations as part of the Irish Government Talks Team and participated throughout the discussions, including the final session at Castle Buildings in Stormont.


The EFTA/EEA Solution to the Current BREXIT Impasse

Implications of current Brexit negotiations failing

Mrs May’s government, without any practical Brexit plan, has created a mess and time is running out. Without a practical solution to the soft border in Ireland there can be no transition deal and, therefore, no withdrawal agreement.   Without one, the UK would leave the European Union (EU) on 29th March 2019 with no arrangements in place to continue trading with the Single Market (Internal Market or wider European Economic Area, EEA).  Such a situation (often called ‘falling off a cliff edge’) would be hugely disruptive to the existing highly integrated trade with the EEA and would impact the wider UK economy.

Government Proposals lead to Brexit in Name Only

However, should the government succeed in getting the EU to accept its proposed solution(s) to the Irish border and to wider trade with the EU, the outcome is likely to be Brexit in name only. Worse, the UK would become firstly a powerless temporary vassal state and then a permanent one under increasingly arduous EU imposed conditions, such as sacrificing the UK fishing industry, surrendering UK defence and defence procurement to the EU, paying substantial amounts into the EU budget, accepting a continuation of free movement (uncontrolled EU immigration, with extra rights for EU citizens), unconditional compliance with all existing and future EU laws, remaining under the EU’s European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Mrs May’s approach to Brexit is the Problem

Yet this unwanted situation is of Mrs May’s making by her seriously reckless decision, first mentioned in her Lancaster House speech, 17th January 2017, to leave the Single Market on Brexit day. Whilst leaving may be desirable in the long term, it is hardly practical now and her proposed solutions of mutual recognition of standards and a free trade agreement look increasingly unrealistic and counter-productive.  Her wishful thinking, dithering and failure to understand how the EU and EEA works, have only made matters worse.

A simple EFTA/EEA Solution to Mrs May’s Brexit Problems

Many of the problems Mrs May has created can be solved by remaining within the Single Market (even temporarily) via a different, more flexible route.  Such a route is available if we re-join The European Free Trade Association, EFTA, assuming they would have us back.  Whilst this cannot be taken for granted, it would be advantageous to the existing EFTA/EEA countries (Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein – Switzerland is outside the EEA) giving the overall grouping greater robustness.  The EU has hinted that it could accept this as an option to achieve an orderly Brexit.

Criticisms of EFTA/EEA (aka The Norway Option) can often be resolved through research using original or reputable sources via the internet (e.g. here).  However, there will always remain the opportunity for the EFTA/EEA option or any other suggestions to be misrepresented by the unscrupulous or ignorant.

EFTA is a Trading Association without political aspirations

Originally set up by, among various countries, the UK, EFTA is not a stepping stone to EU membership or even to associate membership of the EU. EFTA existed before the creation of the Single Market. As its name suggests, it was  – and indeed is – purely a trading bloc. However, EFTA countries can participate in the Single Market on the basis of the EEA Agreement.

EEA Agreement is Flexible and Customisable

The basic EEA Agreement  is amended from time to time (through additional Annexes and Protocols) as it applies to each of the EFTA members. It is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach and is customised to fit each’s requirements.  Thus we could get a bespoke agreement by taking and amending the existing ‘off the self’ versions.

Control of EU Immigration into the UK

Article 112 (the Safeguard Measures) of the EEA Agreement provides a mechanism for the UK unilaterally to control immigration from the EU. Similar wording has already been copied by the EU into their draft Withdrawal Agreement (Article 13, Protocols relating to Northern Ireland) effectively allowing the EU unilaterally to limit immigration into the EU from the UK.

Agriculture and Fishing are outside the EEA

The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy and the Common Agricultural Policy are excluded from the EEA Agreement. We could therefore regain control of our Exclusive Economic Zone  next March without having to ask the EU.

Laws relevant to trade in the EEA

The EU acquis (or body of laws) relevant to trade comprises about 25% of the total EU acquis and in 90% of cases reportedly originates from higher (global) bodies.  We would need to comply anyway in order to trade elsewhere, unless we chose to leave organisations such as the World Trade Organisation.  The rest of the EU acquis does not apply unless we choose to adopt any which we could modify as required at a later date.

Almost  frictionless trade within the EEA

It is membership of the Single Market (or wider EEA) and not membership of a customs union that delivers nearly frictionless trade with the EU for countries like Norway. This is because each member is working to common standards and processes (harmonised) for product, production, market surveillance and conformity assessment under a centralised system of bureaucratic control by the EU.  The EU’s Guide to the implementation of directives based on the New Approach and the Global Approach explains what applies to many products.

External Border Controls protect the EEA

By contrast, 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 provisions, effectively border controls, also manage safety and other unacceptable risks to EEA members, consumers and enterprises involved with ‘imports’ and are sometimes protectionist.

There also need to be arrangements to control diseases and parasites etc. in imported livestock, products, plants, packaging etc. from ‘third’ countries.  According to EU law, products of animal origin (meat and meat products) imported into the EU must be inspected (sanitary checks) at Border Inspection Posts (BIPs). For products of plant origin (for plants and plant-derived foods) phytosanitary checks are required at Community Entry Points (CEPs, Designated Ports of Entry). It is a nightmare and this is what we would face next March if Mrs May persists in her stubbornness.

EEA Membership allows participation in critical trade related decision making

A mechanism exists for EFTA members to participate in shaping decisions by the EU, which is described here.  Unlike EU Member States, EFTA members also freely participate in global bodies helping to form standards and practices before these are passed down to the EU for implementation.

Free Trade Agreements

Both EFTA as a whole and individual EFTA countries are free to make their own trade agreements, unlike Member States of the EU or of its customs union.  EFTA countries do not operate common external tariffs.

EEA Membership is Free

For EFTA countries, EEA membership is effectively free although they do ‘voluntarily’ contribute to the specific agencies they participate in and to development grants. We could pick and choose.

Judicial Oversight of EFTA/EEA by the EFTA Court

The EFTA Court is independent of the ECJ although it can take into consideration or follow ECJ rulings. It does not take precedence over national courts enabling the UK, if we so choose, to ignore any of its judgments.  The European Commission could object but we could then ignore it too.

Quitting the EEA at any time

Article 127 of the EEA Agreement covers the process which involves giving 12 months’ notice.  Unlike leaving the EU, no payments and negotiations are required.

Further Information

The EFTA/EEA option and Brexit debate in general has often suffered from misunderstandings or errors and mischievous misrepresentation effectively inhibiting rational discussion.  The following are useful sources of research information: Brexit Reset, Eureferendum.com, various posts on Campaign for an Independent Britain and affiliates.  For consequences of a No Deal situation, see the EU’s Notices to Stakeholders under Brexit preparedness.

The Way Ahead to Independent Sovereign Nation Trading

The EFTA/EEA route could salvage the faltering Brexit process, at least as an interim measure. It would facilitate leaving the political, centralised, anti-democratic construct of the EU whilst still retaining (and expanding) almost frictionless trade.  It could also provide a springboard for a highly successful trading relationship for independent sovereign nations in Europe.

Stupidity or sabotage part 2

Following last week’s debate on the Customs Union in the House of Lords, Thursday saw the Commons stage a debate, entitled “Customs and Borders”. Dr Richard North followed it and the title of his blog post, “a showpiece of ignorance”  is enough in and of itself to make the point that the level of understanding about the nature of a customs union in the lower chamber is, with a few exceptions, as  appallingly low among MPs as among their Lordships. Dr North described the contribution of Yvette Cooper  and others as “an exercise in futility.” If we have needed any further evidence since the referendum of why we ought to leave the EU, it is our MPs’ total cluelessness of the true nature of the beast.

He also suggest a reason why some MPs are clinging on to the fantasy that staying in the customs union would enable us to enjoy seamless trade with the EU. It only needs a plane trip to the Turkish/Bulgarian border crossing at Kapikule to watch Turkey’s version of “Operation Stack” to expose the fallacy of their argument, so why cling to their illusions?

The most likely answer is that the remoaners have realised that their dream of a second referendum is a non-starter. There is no groundswell among the public to go through all that again. Desperate to stop us leaving the EU, their only hope is via Parliament.

Can they succeed? Unlikely but one must never underestimate the malice of convinced remoaners. They could easily be thwarted, however, if the bulk of MPs realised that a customs union (i) is not joined at the hip to the single market, (ii) would not solve the Irish border problem and (iii) would not lead to seamless trade with the rest of the EU. We can be thankful that the penny has dropped with a few MPs bu they need to show a bit more evangelistic zeal among their colleagues.

The Customs Union – stupidity or sabotage?

Regular readers of this blog will know without a shadow of doubt that there is nothing to be gained by remaining in the EU’s Customs Union. Well, dear readers, you can pat yourselves on the back for you are clearly much wiser than 348 members of the Upper Chamber of our Parliament.

Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, speaking in the debate preceding the vote, said “I do not recall at the time of the referendum any debate about a customs union.” He was perfectly correct in saying this. Staying in the customs union is such a daft idea that no one felt the need to bring the subject up.  As Dr Richard North points out,  “A customs union does not in any way eliminate a border, as we see with the borders between Turkey and EU Member States.” it is therefore no help in solving the Irish border question. 

He also makes the point that, as usual, the Press are all over the place in their reporting of yesterday’s vote. It was not a “big defeat” for the government as the amendment supported by 348 peers only forced “the government to explain what it has done to pursue remaining in a customs union”. In other words, suppose that some degree of light finally dawned and the government realised that there was no point in remaining in a customs union, all this “big defeat” would require them to do would be to say to their Lordships “not much”. Hardly the sabotaging of Brexit which the headlines seem to suggest.

For people looking for a way to keep the flow of trade moving in the immediate post-Brexit period, both across the Irish border and through the Channel Tunnel, it makes for more sense to visit the invisible border between Sweden and Norway rather than Turkey’s version of “Operation Stack” at Kapikule on its border with EU member state Bulgaria. Norway is not in the customs union; Turkey is.  Need one say any more?

The Government should finally lay to rest all this nonsense about a customs union. It should also abandon the current plans for a transitional deal. Further evidence of its inadequacies emerged yesterday  when Cecilia Malmström, the EU’s trade commissioner, said that the UK would no longer be part of trade agreements negotiated by the EU with third countries  once we leave. Re-joining EFTA  as an interim arrangement would not only solve the Irish border issue but would address the issue of our trade with countries like South Korea and Mexico as EFTA has negotiated free trade agreements with virtually all the countries with which the EU has FTAs.

It remains a mystery to many observers why this sensible option isn’t being pursued. For all its well-known faults as a long-term relationship, as a stopgap arrangement it is far better than the arrangement currently being discussed with the EU. Adopting it would put to bed a number of issues which should have been dealt with well before now and thus enable the Brexit debate to move on after being stuck in the same groove for far too long