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.

Lord David Owen: Here’s how to stop the EU yelling “heel” and prosper after Brexit

This piece first appeared in the Sunday Times and was also posted on Lord Owen’s personal website. It is used with full permission of the author.

A vital Brexit issue will have to be resolved in the next six to eight weeks. Are we to be thrust into political limbo after leaving the European Union next year or will we assert democratic control through parliament, a core reason for many voting to leave the EU?

The guidelines from the other 27 EU heads of government, published last month, called for any transitional arrangement between the UK leaving the EU on March 29, 2019 and the end of December 2020 to be “clearly defined and precisely limited in time”. It went on to say any EU legislation would have to apply to the UK under the competence of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and that the UK would participate in the customs union and the single market.

We have already seen the peremptory way the EU-UK agreement document published in phase one of the negotiations was brushed aside a fortnight ago, when a Brussels source spoke bluntly: “The deal in December did specify March 2019 for [ending] free movement rights. That was then.” Now free movement extends throughout the transition. The European parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator says “it will be whole acquis [the term for the EU’s body of laws] and nothing else”. He says MEPs would accept a longer transition from 21 months up to 36 months.

What all this demonstrates is that, under article 50, the EU negotiators see themselves as prisoners to agreement from any of the 27 member states. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, made this crystal clear over Ireland. Now objections from former east European countries have moved the goalposts to the UK’s detriment. We are on notice that the next problem will be Gibraltar. This pattern will continue in other areas until we have more leverage in negotiations. The UK has already shaken hands on shelling out billions of pounds during the transition and we talk in parliament of no taxation without representation. Yet that is exactly what we are going to see more of during our period in limbo with no vote.

The think tank Open Europe, an objective commentator, puts the figure at approaching €60bn. As a Brexiteer, I fully accept that the UK would make payments to the EU budget during our transition, as all non-EU members of the European Economic Area (EEA) already do. However, like Norway, we would make extra payments if there were a successful free trade agreement. Lord Kerr, who as a diplomat designed article 50, told the House of Lords: “We will come to heel in the end, probably quite quickly, because it is very important to avoid the cliff edge next year. We will not avoid it, but we will postpone it.” That sums it all up. This government is coming to heel and we had better realise it now.

We could effectively avoid both these cliff edges — an agreement on leaving the EU and on free trade — if the European Council’s guidelines for the “political limbo” period allowed for the UK to participate inside the single market as a non-EU member of the EEA. For the past 18 months, I have quietly tried to
convince the prime minister that this is the best existing democratic framework for us to be within for the transition period. It does not mean exercising the same powers as are open to the other three members — Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein — and we would be accepting the European Council’s demand for an absolutist status quo standstill, but we would not be in limbo.

We would have automatic EEA consultation rights on EU legislation and would not be under the ECJ, but the EEA-Efta (European Free Trade Association) court and the EEA governance pillar. Professor Carl Baudenbacher, a judge of the Efta court, giving evidence in the Lords, indicated that the EEA/Efta option for the UK’s transition period is feasible, even given the short timescale.

I have no doubt whatever that a transition predominantly via the EEA would, quite manifestly, be better for all concerned. A domestic advantage is it would curb any legal action over the EEA agreement that might be in prospect. A court case in November 2016 claimed that the UK had a legal right to remain in the EEA, despite ceasing to be a member of the EU, until parliament voted otherwise. This was not accepted by the High Court, which ruled that the case was being brought too early for it to adjudicate. If the UK government does not give the year’s statutory notice of leaving the EEA in March, and relies on automatic exit in March 2019, we could see the lawfulness of the government’s conduct being challenged in UK courts.

Despite constant warnings, the government has hidden behind a longstanding diverence of interpretation on whether, on leaving the EU, a country ceases to be a contracting party to the EEA agreement. The fact is the UK government— not the EU — signed the relevant documents to enter the agreement. A government that was serious about negotiations and acquiring more leverage would have no hesitation at all in testing this case as a matter of international law by the Vienna convention and where the ECJ is not the final authority. Nevertheless, that is history. Now if the EU-UK withdrawal agreement contained a few technical amendments, the UK could set aside all legal arguments by staying in the EEA during the transition period.

The details will soon emerge where it will be clear that the EU accepts the EEA agreement continues to apply during the limbo period but the UK is not allowed to participate. The EEA option I am arguing for — for the duration of the transition only — is a mixture of bespoke and off-the-shelf. It cannot become a
permanent mechanism for leaving the EU, as many Brexiteers feared might happen. It is being advocated as a good-faith response to the European Council’s guidelines. It would help fill in the detail of how the UK government will approach the transition to achieve its aim of a bold and ambitious free trade agreement. Having the greatest possible tarie and barrier-free trade with our neighbours is an achievable ambition, as well as negotiating our own trade agreements around the world on leaving the EEA.

Few want a hard Brexit, but to avoid it the UK needs to put forward a reasoned democratic arrangement for handling the transition. Any proposed limbo status is unacceptable. The UK should insist on full participation and full rights under this agreement, including, subject to the consent of its non-EU parties, the ability to participate in its EEA-Efta governance pillar, free of direct ECJ and European Commission supervision. For EU members, an EEA transition follows precedent in using existing democratic machinery and treaties. It could hopefully unite all shades of “leave” opinion, and attract some former remainers who are vocal over continuing in the single market outside the EU for the transition. It is high time we came closer together in parliament as we embark on this national endeavour.

Lord Owen was the Labour foreign secretary from 1977 to 1979 and later led the Social Democratic Party

Mrs May’s trashing of the Successful Nobo Industry

Notified Bodies (Nobos), together with Designated Bodies (Debos) and Assessment Bodies (Asbos), are one of our country’s least known success stories. Yet they could easily largely disappear, together with thousands of well paid jobs and millions if not billions of pounds in export earnings, if Mrs May persists in her determination to take this country out of the Single Market and European Economic Area (EEA).

A wide range of products – from equipment used in explosive atmospheres to toys – are required by EU product law to undergo third party conformity assessment and/or testing by suitable independent accredited organisations (Nobos) in order to be placed on the market in the European Union (EU) and often by extension the EEA. This is to ensure that they meet EU legal requirements, which often includes compliance with specified requirements in European Standards (ENs).  This assessment, depending upon the relevant EU product legislation and ENs may require continuing surveillance (of manufacture) and testing of the product by the Nobo.  Certification can also be time limited as well, requiring reassessment after a number of years.  Over the years, the EU has increased the scope of its legislation, which may in part originate elsewhere in world bodies or agreements and it carries out periodic updates of existing product legislation.

In turn, the Nobos need to be resident in the EEA, Switzerland or Turkey, be accredited with relevant competence(s) and are listed on the EU’s NANDO database.  Each Member State also has an accreditation organisation which regularly checks the competence of Nobos to carry out assessment and testing work. The UK-based list of Nobos includes famous and respected names such as British Standards Institute (BSI), Lloyd’s Register, the National Physical Laboratory and The Vehicle Certification Agency. There are also many other less well known, smaller organisations in the private and public sectors.

Through mutual recognition, a product with a conformity certificate issued by an accredited Nobo in one Member State is accepted in all the others without further assessment or testing.  Sometimes, however, a product may undergo further assessment as part of an overall system, but this is not intended to repeat previous work.

Recently the European Commission has published guidance for manufacturers and Nobos for after 29th March 2019 Notice to stakeholders withdrawal of the United Kingdom and EU rules in the field of industrial products.  After this date Nobos registered in the United Kingdom (as a ‘third country’ outside the EU and EEA) will lose their EU Nobo status and be removed from the EU’s database.

A manufacturer (or supplier) of a product requiring third party conformity assessment after 29th March 2019 will have to use a Nobo based in the EEA, Switzerland or Turkey in order to place a new or modified product on the EU market.  When placing a new or modified product on the UK market, the manufacturer is likely to opt for an EEA- or Switzerland-based Nobo for all conformity assessment to prevent duplication of work and costs. After all, Mrs May intends that after Brexit (if it ever happens instead of EU Vassal State status) UK legislation (presumably including product legislation) will follow EU legislation.

UK-based former EU Nobos could then see much of their work disappear quickly, including any work related to putting products on the UK market.  The Annex to the EU’s Notice to stakeholders withdrawal of the United Kingdom and EU rules in the field of industrial products lists the EU product categories covered. This, however, may be just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ since, depending upon the EU product legislation, components making up a particular product may also need some form of independent conformity testing and inspection.  Manufacturers or suppliers may also like to use a ‘one stop shop’ approach developing a longer term relationship with one Nobo to cover a wide range of their independent conformity, testing and quality assessment requirements, not merely to comply with EU product legislation.

A further blow to UK based Nobos is that without the potentially larger market provided by the EU, some investment decisions, say for testing facilities, may not be justified or even feasible.  In the current climate of uncertainty, prudent UK-based Nobos could already start transferring work and jobs to other EEA members in order to retain existing EU based customers.  They may also consider working through an EU-based Nobo who will ‘rebadge’ their work and obviously charge for so doing. This would in turn undermine their unique selling proposition – competitiveness.

It is possible that this impending loss of EU accreditation by Nobos can be successfully resolved by the Department for (not) Exiting the European Union.  However, at the moment, this does not look promising given that some of the inaccurate and uncompromising statements in the EU’s Notice to stakeholders withdrawal of the United Kingdom and EU rules in the field of industrial products relating to Nobos may not be legal under EU law; Nobos are not solely within the EU.

Third party testing and certification appears to have a very promising future worldwide. It provides confidence that safety, environmental impact and energy consumption have been independently assessed.  It may be essential when assessing some of the products of the future, such as autonomous or driverless cars. Sadly the UK is potentially going to face a huge handicap if Nobos cannot viably operate here through political decisions of the government.

The potential loss of UK and EU markets for UK based Nobos would not arise if Mrs May had not made such a rash decision in ruling out any ongoing membership of the EEA after Brexit.  She could have decided instead after Brexit on 29th March 2019 to re-join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). This provides a breathing space. enabling us to remain in the EEA (whilst outside the EU) under different conditions which, for example, allow unilateral control of immigration (see Chapter 4, Schedule 112 The Safeguard Measures in the EEA Agreement).  Will she have the courage after 29th March 2019 to face people from these UK-based former EU-accredited Nobos who have worked hard over the years to build expertise, facilities, reputations and long-term relationships with customers and yet face unemployment, because of her premature rejection of a useful “holding position” without any consideration of an alternative?

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.