Awaiting the storm (or explosion!)

It cannot be much longer before the penny finally drops regarding the terms being proposed by the EU for the UK’s 21-month “transitional arrangement.”

Businessmen like John Mills and John Longworth, both of whom met Michel Barnier in Brussels last week, are distinctly unimpressed with what we are likely to be offered, but it is surprising that there haven’t already been even louder cries of outrage from the Conservative back benches. Last November, at a meeting organised by Conservative MEP David Campbell Bannerman, Rt Hon David Jones MP was quite unequivocal that any further involvement of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the legal affairs of the UK after Brexit would be an “absolute red line” for himself and a number of his colleagues, who would rather leave with no deal.

As more details emerge, it is becoming clear that it’s not just a role for the ECJ in our affairs which the EU wishes to incorporate into the transitional deal. According to an article in The Times, the EU will insist on the free movement of people throughout the period and the inclusion of people moving to the UK before 31st December 2020 in any post-Brexit agreement on citizens’ rights.. This again is a slap in the face for leave voters. It’s not just that many of us voted leave because we want to see a drastic cut in immigration; more to the point, we voted leave because we wanted our institutions to be sovereign – and this means that the EU must have no say in determining who can or cannot come into the UK or how long they can stay.

This tougher stance is contained in a new document dated 15th January. It is not the final word on the EU’s position, which will not be published until the end of the month, but it certainly gives us an idea of the general direction of travel. The guidelines produced last year by the European Parliament, although essentially a consultative document, were bad enough. We would be, in effect, a colony of the EU, unable to sign any trade agreements with other countries and still subject to the Common Fisheries and Common Agricultural policies. This document was bad enough, but according to Bloomberg, the latest document also states that we would need to seek the EU’s permission even to start negotiations on trade deals with third parties. We would be unable to strike out on our own path. The net “divorce bill” may also be increased.

Perhaps ironically, the Council President Donald Tusk told the European Parliament that “our hearts are still open “that the UK might “have a change of heart” and stay within the EU. This suggests a warmth towards us which just is not reflected in the negotiating guidelines which seem designed to squeeze and humiliate us as much as possible. Chancellor Philip Hammond claimed recently that the EU is “paranoid” that other countries will follow us out of the door. It has also been claimed that the EU is pressurising Switzerland not to make a bilateral deal with the UK The EU’s tough stance may well all be technically justifiable from the treaties, but it clearly wishes to interpret them in the toughest way possible as far as Brexit is concerned. No one with any sense of self-respect should give in to this bullying.

The transitional deal must therefore be kicked into the long grass as soon as possible, especially as there is no guarantee that a new trade deal will be ready to replace it after 21 months. The EU’s ambassadors have signalled a willingness for the transitional period to be extended, but this would only prolong an unsatisfactory situation which is not Brexit in any real sense of the term.

A further complication is looming on the horizon. The Norwegians have indicated that they would seek to renegotiate their trading arrangements with the EU if we were given favourable access to the EU’s single market  while not being a member of it.  This, of course, refers to any long-term deal and therefore is not an issue for Mrs May at the moment as the EU has insisted that negotiations on a long-term trading arrangement cannot start yet.  Let’s face it, she has enough on her plate as her team prepares to negotiate the transitional arrangements. We must hope that there is already a storm brewing up on the Conservative back benches which will rapidly knock these unacceptable proposals on the head and force the government to take a different approach.

If not, the storm is likely to strike with far greater ferocity  in four years’ time. A botched Brexit where we leave in name only is not what we voted for and not what Mrs May promised us when she became leader.   Brexit must mean Brexit or our Prime Minister will not only find herself consigned to a “rogues gallery”, excoriated by posterity alongside the likes of Lord North, Neville Chamberlain, Heath, Blair and Brown, but she may well take her party down with her.

Taking Stock

Where are we with the Brexit negotiations and where would we like them to be going?

It’s hard to find any sort of consensus about the former, let alone the latter. Are we being led deliberately towards a Brexit in name only or are we about to see our side walk away from the negotiations and rely on so-called “WTO rules” to govern all our future international trade? Was Article 50 always a trap which was going to end up locking us into the EU?

Given the multiplicity of deeply-held views, this piece could end up being just one other person’s opinion. I hope not.  In summing up where we are now, I have read a fair number of different commentators and weighed their opinions before writing this summary.

Firstly, I think it is beyond dispute that the talks have not gone brilliantly from the UK’s point of view, but at least we can be thankful they did not grind to a halt last December as some had predicted.

David Davis and his team got off to a bad start by agreeing to the EU’s sequencing – in other words, “sufficient progress” had to be made on the Irish border issue, the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK and the “divorce settlement” before we could proceed to other issues. Under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, there was no requirement for him to agree to this.

Next comes the transitional arrangement. This was our side’s idea and does not reflect well on our politicians and civil servants.  Not that long ago, we were hearing from some quarters that a trade deal between the EU and the UK would be “the easiest in human history” because of our regulatory conformity. It has since dawned on at least some politicians (although possibly not even all of them, even now)  that this isn’t the case.

The mistake is a very fundamental one because it reveals a profound ignorance of the purpose of the whole European project. We have always viewed the EU as a trading bloc – after all, that was what Edward Heath sought to emphasise in the early 1970s. He did occasionally talk about the sharing of sovereignty, but he didn’t exactly bend over backwards to  explain even to Parliament what we were joining. Of course, Heath knew the truth and now our team is having to learn the hard way. The EU is primarily a political project and trade issues are only a means to an end.

It is also a very rules-bound organisation. Belatedly, our team is discovering that “flexibility” is not a popular word in Brussels. Treaties with precise wording govern every aspect of the EU project. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, knows its workings inside out and unfortunately, comes across as far more on the ball than David Davis.

Is Barnier an ogre? Does he want to punish the UK? Is he merely a puppet whose strings are being pulled by Berlin? A delegation of pro-Brexit businessmen met him in Brussels recently. One of them, CIB Committee member John Mills, described him as “tough and charming“. Essentially, he wants these negotiations to succeed but not at the expense of the integrity of the EU’s single market.  The European project unquestionably took a knock when we voted to leave and he as much as any senior figure in the EU is committed to damage limitation and keeping the show on the road.  The EU has other crises on its hands and Brexit is an unwelcome distraction. After all, it was our decision to leave.  Given these factors, Barnier is merely sticking to the EU rulebook which he knows so well. There is no evidence of any personal animosity towards us our our politicians.  His biggest gripe is that we don’t seem to know what we want from Brexit.

This is essentially where our request for a transitional arrangement comes in. There have been pro-withdrawal groups, including the Campaign for an Independent Britain, even before we joined the European project in 1973. We have been good at arguing the case for independence and ultimately persuaded over 17 million voters of our point of view. We have been less good at explaining how we can leave seamlessly and this has been the root of the Government’s problems.

The Transitional deal, at least if it is negotiated according to the rules laid down by the European Parliament, will be very bad news for us.  It seems to be being pursued purely because the Government knows that a full trade deal will not be ready by March 2019; in other words, it buys us more time.  Theoretically, there is a “sunset clause” – it will only last 21 months, but what if the trade deal isn’t signed by the end of this period?

The significant and surprising support for this transitional deal seems to be based entirely on the assumption that this won’t be a worry. If there’s something good to look forward to, these 21 months of being essentially controlled by Brussels is a price worth paying. This is a fallacy, however, as this piece helpfully explains.

The dilemma we face is that while there is widespread agreement about where we actually want to be after Brexit, there is no agreement on how to get there.

Apart from diehard remoaners, most people would probably agree on all or most of the following:-

i) The ECJ must have no power whatsoever to interfere in the government or legal process in the UK – including those EU citizens currently resident here. We must remove ourselves from Europol and the European Arrest Warrant – in other words, we are back to being a normal sovereign independent country as far as criminal justice is concerned.

ii) Fisheries and agriculture must be 100% under domestic control (and fishing should not be managed on a quota system)

iii) We must be separate from the EU’s military machine, including in the areas of procurement.

iv) We should not make any contribution to the EU’s funds apart from covering our costs where we wish to participate in a specific scheme such as the Erasmus student exchange.

v) we must have complete control of our borders

vi) we must have complete freedom to set our own levels of taxation, benefits and tariffs.

Agreeing our long-term goal is the easy bit. The problem is that we may never get there unless the Government can define in terms which the EU can understand what we want in the immediate post-Brexit period. The transitional arrangements might at least keep industry happy inasmuch as no new guidelines need be given for life could continue for a further 21 months more or less as it does now, but this is only kicking the can down the road. If we find ourselves bogged down in a transition arrangement along the lines already discussed and this period is then extended to (and beyond) the next General Election, we may find ourselves stuck in a sort of limbo which would please no one and would leave many voters vulnerable to the remoaners’ propaganda and thus eventually crawling back into the EU. Alternatively, if we walk away from the negotiations altogether, the net result could be a sudden and severe recession. In this instance,  once again we could be faced with a clamour to re-join.

This would be a tragedy. The key to preventing this happening is to focus on the unacceptability of the current transitional proposals. While many leave voters are strongly opposed to any further membership of the European Economic Area, as a stopgap, it is much less awful, as Nigel Moore argues here. What is more, according to Profesor George Yarrow, unless we give notice that we are quitting the EEA before 29th March of this year, we will still be in it on Brexit day by default, as leaving he EEA is totally separate from leaving the EU.

Yarrow’s thesis has not been put to the test, but then, Brexit as a whole is breaking completely new ground. It is hardly surprising that the path has not been a smooth one. All the same, progress has not been satisfactory thus far and although on balance, I think that the Government’s poor performance has been borne out of an inability to master the issues as quickly as anticipated rather than out of a devious plan to stifle Brexit, Mr Davis and his team desperately need to up their game if we are to achieve a successful Brexit in just over a year’s time.

NO! NO! NO!

Listen to the clip attached to this article. Pinch yourself. Is it real? Here we have Nigel Farage, the man who friend and foe alike acknowledge played a significant role in securing the historic vote to leave the EU over eighteen months ago, calling for a second referendum.

Yes, I could hardly believe it. The author of the article suspects an ulterior motive – in other words, that Nigel is happier when he has something to snipe about from the sidelines. Nigel himself offers a much more straightforward reason for his “conversion” – winning a second referendum would finally shut up the likes of Blair and Clegg for good. Perhaps – but this argument is flawed for several reasons.

Firstly and most importantly, there is the practical issue of the ongoing Brexit talks. Our team needs the distraction of a second referendum like it needs a hole in the head.  We are less than 15 months away from Brexit day and there is a huge amount which has to be sorted out before then. As for groups like CIB, rather than gearing up for a second referendum, our energies should be devoted instead to campaigning for a change of course from the current plan for a transitional deal which, as we have pointed out, is most unsatisfactory as it stands.

Secondly, a second referendum would undermine the legitimacy of the first one. The question was simple – Should the UK remain a member of the EU or leave the EU? 51.9% of those who voted, in other words, 17,410,742 voters, voted to leave. The vast majority of them knew what they were doing and while a few have changed their minds, most people have accepted the result.  The Government triggered Article 50 and is pushing through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill on the strength of the result. It was the biggest democratic exercise in our nation’s political history. More people voted to leave the EU than have ever voted for anything else. The result must stand.

Thirdly, who wants to go through that gruelling campaign again?  When I look back to 2016, I will never forget the euphoria of that momentous day when the result was declared, but neither will I forget the preceding months, including taking part in six debates in seven days. Those late nights, the travelling, the thousands of e-mails, the phone calls. It was absolutely incessant. From the day when Cameron announced the date of the referendum until the result was announced, it completely took over my life and the life of thousands of many activists up and down the country. I doubt if there are many people on either side of the  Brexit debate who are keen on a repeat performance.

Fourthly, it would reopen a lot of old wounds. Nigel’s opinions, sadly, come across as the view of someone enclosed in the Westminster bubble. The average man or woman in the street was never that interested in the European Union and I suspect that there are many people who now switch off whenever Brexit is mentioned in the news, especially as it is all getting very technical. Let’s face is – some of us who were active in the campaign are fed up with it all and can’t wait for Brexit to be done and dusted. To repeat a point which was made above, most people, whichever way they voted, have accepted the result and even some remain voters, rather than moping,  are considering the opportunities Brexit will bring. Apart from some of our universities and parts of London and Scotland,  animosity over Brexit has been pretty short-lived. We have moved on.  Who cares about Nick Clegg, let alone Tony Blair?  The reason their bleating is getting more desperate in tone is that every day which passes is a day closer  to the day when we finally leave the EU and everything for which they have stood politically will come crashing to the ground.

One reason why we can be confident that Nigel’s call for a second referendum will fall flat is that the Conservative Party, like the country as a whole, has no desire to reopen old wounds. Last June’s election result was a shock to the system and it has concentrated minds powerfully. Apart from the real headbangers like Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry, most Tory MPs know that their survival depends on standing together and delivering a successful Brexit. A second referendum will do nothing for their party’s cause. Furthermore, considering the bad blood between Leave.eu, in which  Nigel was prominent, on the one hand and Vote.leave, which was the preferred leave campaign of most leave-supporting Conservative MPs, on the other, there will be little enthusiasm among any Tories for Nigel to be calling the shots on Brexit.

So while many of us share his desire to see Clegg, Blair & Co silenced once and for all, a second referendum is not the answer. Thank you for all you did, Nigel, but as Mrs Thatcher would have said, NO, NO, NO!

  Photo by Michael Vadon

Fishing – a step backwards

A war of attrition is in no one’s interests

We may have triggered Article 50 this week, but the negotiations haven’t begun yet. Rather like those pre-match interviews with boxers who boast of their strength and vow to knock their opponent’s block off, we are still going through the preliminaries. On both sides of Channel, politicians are creating soundbytes rather than giving any concrete details of their negotiating strategy.

This has clearly been the case over here. Mrs May is reputed to be a lady who pays great attention to detail. It is now over nine months since the referendum result and we must hope that the ministers and Civil Servants who will lead the negotiations have been doing their homework. We know that there have been meetings between the UK’s Brexit team and a number of figures from the business world along with representatives of other interest groups such as the fishing industry, but we still know very little apart from the Government’s desire for us to leave the Single Market.  Even here, however, little has been given away. The idea of a transitional deal has been doing the rounds in the media and isn’t being denied by the Government.

This is as far as it goes. Obviously, there is much to be said for keeping one’s powder dry and not revealing our negotiating position in advance of the talks beginning, but the lack of detail has given carte blanche for remainiacs to paint a doomsday scenario.

Meanwhile, in Brussels and Berlin there has been a rather odd mixture of conciliatory language and very tough talking. One blogger has described the utterances from the EU as “models of Teutonic coherence.” The article goes on to say that “one can almost hear the machine-gun rattle of the press officer listing out the points at the journo’s winking recorder. And once they actually realised that the UK really will walk away from a bad deal, the focus of their press manipulation has been pushing the line that our hopes are unrealistic, and that our only option is to take our punishment for the good of the 27. Only it must never be called punishment.”

In other words, it’s pure gamesmanship and the Continental press are happy to play ball. The article features a link to a piece on the on-line English language version of Der Spiegel which is worth quoting in full as an example of the sabre-rattling which is going on:-

Hopes and Delusions from Brexitasia

The EU isn’t setting out to punish Britain for leaving the bloc. But it is almost certain that the ultimate deal will be portrayed as such by Brexiteers. The reason is the completely unrealistic expectations harbored by the British.

The British don’t just live on an island in a geographical sense — it’s also part of their mentality. But when it comes to Brexit these days, that island seems like it’s on a different planet.

Britain’s Brexit secretary David Davis said in January that the United Kingdom wanted to have “the exact same benefits” after its departure as it did before. It is a comment that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t forgotten. If the UK isn’t as well positioned with the EU on trade and customs as it was before Brexit, his party won’t approve the Brexit deal, he told parliament on Wednesday.

If Corbyn means this seriously — his parliamentary group, after all, approved the motion for Brexit — it suggests that he has lost touch with reality. The EU position — backed by the European Commission, the European Parliament and EU member states — has been crystal clear for months: Following Brexit, the UK cannot end up in a better situation than EU members, if only to avoid giving EU-skeptics in other countries a boost.

Theresa May, by contrast, finds herself in a position that could hardly be weaker. In only two years, she must lead the highly complicated negotiations to a successful conclusion — a task which is, to put it mildly, rather ambitious. It’s made even more complicated by the fact that she must fight on multiple fronts: Scotland, Northern Ireland, Brussels, the British economy and domestic British politics. If she doesn’t succeed, a so-called “dirty Brexit” looms, the departure from the EU without a trade deal. Were that to happen, British trade with the EU would then be conducted on the basis of WTO rules. For the EU that would be unpleasant; for the UK it would likely be a catastrophe. The British Treasury has predicted that the country’s gross domestic product could shrink by 7.5 percent in such a scenario and tax shortfalls would amount to 45 billion pounds.

The pro-Brexit press seems unperturbed. “The EU is on the verge of the abyss,” the Daily Telegraph wrote on Wednesday. The growth of populism on the Continent, the strength of the British economy and Europe’s terrorism fears, the paper claims, strengthen the UK’s odds for a good deal. It argued that May needs to “go all in.”

Terrorism Threat

But the British are also afraid of terrorism and are likewise dealing with a rise in populism, as the racist undertones of the Brexit campaign recently proved. Furthermore, the fact that the British economy has not plunged yet is due to a simple truth: Nothing much has changed so far. The UK is still an EU member and it still has access to the common market. Two years from now, however, things will be different.

May knows this too. On Wednesday, she warned “there will be consequences for the UK of leaving the EU.” The country would lose influence over the European economic rules to which British companies would have to adhere in the future. It’s not for nothing that May’s stated goal wasn’t the “exact same benefits” but the “best-possible deal.”

A section of May’s Brexit letter demonstrates the true weakness of her position. If there isn’t a deal at the end of the negotiations, the letter to the EU states, the UK wouldn’t just be reduced to following WTO rules — it would “mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.” On this subject, unlike economic issues, disadvantages would be equal for both sides. The danger of terrorism would grow for the UK just as it would for the EU. The fact that May has issued such a threat seems desperate.

Will Brexit negotiations end with a punishment for Britain? It is an impression that will be difficult to avoid in the UK. The EU was demonized in the country for years, allowing EU-skeptic politicians and media to claim that Brexit would allow the UK to regain its lost greatness. The Brexit deal can only disappoint such expectations. And it seems likely that Brexiteers will seek to portray those shortcomings as an EU effort to punish Britain. Otherwise, after all, they would have to take responsibility themselves.

The seeming rejection by the EU of trade negotiations taking place in parallel with the main divorce settlement is grist to the mill for people like Markus Becker, the author of the piece above. The EU is going to punish us or at least impose such a bad deal that this is what it will look like. Is this the truth, however?

Not according to Vincenzo Scarpetta of  Open Europe, who has seen a draft of the EU Council President Donald Tusk’s Brexit plans. They look “anything but punitive” and  leave “the door….wide open for parallel negotiations, albeit not from the very beginning.” In other words, claims that the final divorce settlement must be agreed before any trade talks can start seem to have little foundation in reality. The argument that EU claims about non-members not enjoying the same benefits as members is facile. As Scarpetta rightly says, “what else could EU27 say?”

Exactly. Damage limitation is the name of the game. The UK cannot be seen to be doing better by being out of the EU as it would encourage anti-EU parties in the other countries to jump on the exit  bandwagon. Furthermore, there is much truth too in Der Spiegel’s argument that crashing out of the EU on WTO rules would be unpleasant for the EU but a catastrophe for the UK.

But this is highly improbable. There will be some agreement – if only an agreement to extend the negotiating period. Especially since the election of President Trump, who is no friend of the EU project,  the EU would not want to be seen as  a punisher of dissent. After all, whatever the truth in the claim that Article 50 was inserted into the Lisbon Treaty but never meant to be used, we have played by the EU’s own rules – taking advantage of what was available to us under a treaty of which we were one of 27 (now 28) signatories. Would the EU wish to align itself with the Inquisition, the Soviet Union or North Korea in treating dissent as a heinous crime for which no restraint need be used when dealing with offenders?

Ultimately, we have made a democratic decision to leave an organisation which was never to the taste of many people in this country. There are good reasons to be grateful we left, as Lee Rotherham pointed out a few days ago.  However, there will inevitably be trade-offs as the price for regaining our freedom. We have some strong cards in the negotiations, notably the expertise of our security services and the possibility of closing our waters to EU vessels if there is no agreement on fisheries. There are also areas of vulnerability. At the end of the day, however, even the recent sabre-rattling over Gibraltar cannot hide the fact that there is so much to be lost by a acrimonious divorce that common sense must prevail on both sides – at least, we hope so.